A value-builder, but sometimes a mystery creator!
by William Leslie
A true collector will always treasure a fine military relic. If the artifact comes with a soldier’s name or a bit of a story, the relic will be more valuable — both monetarily and historically. A canteen, with provenance to prove it was carried ashore on D-Day could be worth five or ten times as much as a one without such provenance. Sadly, most of the items in our collections have no provenance. That’s because of the how we came to own our collections, but also because most of us haven’t created the habit of preserving the history of what we collect.
What is “provenance,” anyway? Provenance is a record of ownership of an antique and is used as a guide to authenticity or quality. Often, documents or photos or other artifacts that tie an object to a particular person, place, or event. Provenance is not an unsubstantiated anecdote, however. It takes more than that.
A MAUSER WITH A MYSTERY
Some years ago, a Mauser pistol that almost had an interesting provenance was presented for my review. The provenance that came with it fell short of telling the history of the pistol, however. In fact, it created a mystery that may never be solved.
The pistol is a Mauser Model 1934 chambered for 7.65mm Browning. Markings on it show it was purchased for the Kriegsmarine Nordsee (North Sea) Fleet, serial number N81XX. A local gun shop sold the pistol with provenance in the form of a handwritten letter describing how it became a bring-back trophy of a WWII veteran. It is unlikely that it was fired more than a handful of times after the war. The shop sold the gun and holster for about $350, although this was more than 15 years ago.
A letter accompanied the pistol. The text of the letter follows, more or less as it was written by a WWII vet.
“To begin, I wish it to be known that it’s difficult to remember so many conflicts during WWII. The past years, I have been trying to forget the fights, smells, mud, rain, snow, dead, wounded, nor can one easily forget the fatigue, or the constant fear that a person tries to hide from his men, how anyone can survive that is beyond belief.
As a background, it started August 15, 1944, the invasion of France, called Operation Dragoon. The 7th Army. This was to be my fourth invasion: Sicily, Salerno, and Anzio preceded it. I might add this was the easiest landing, but for a short time. In Italy, it was the 5th Army — uphill all the way.
Our beach head, Delta Force, was in the St. Tropez-Frejus area east of St. Maxine. I was ordered to move inland rapidly as possible by starting up the coastal roads and inland to Vidauban, bypass Salerno & Barjols, and head for Draguignan. Casualties were light as the Germans were retreating with frequent roadblocks by the 11th Panzer Division. Some were tough, others easy.
Our goal was to cut the road at Sisteron, preventing further retreat from Nice, Toulon, and Marseille, then advance to Aspres sur Burech. Our combat team consisted of a Stuart light tank, a Priest (75mm tracked) and the rest half-tracks.
At Sisteron cross road, we had just wiped out a tough road block without high costs to us. Upon completion, we advanced again. Around the curved road came a fast, open-top Mercedes staff car. It was forced to stop suddenly due to the Stuart being in the way. It held two officers and two enlisted men. I ordered them out with hands held high which was done. Suddenly and foolishly, they started drawing their sidearms. Consequently all were killed as we had 2 Thompsons. It seemed senseless and dumb. We discovered they were carrying valuable papers in briefcases and boxes. They were attempting to bypass roadblocks to reach Grenoble and their army. I learned later that the papers were important.
One officer was a submarine commander with medals of uncertain rank. The 2nd officer was a General of a Panzer unit. The driver and a guard were both of the SS.
The naval officer had a special .32 automatic Mauser issued to submarine officers. The general had a special .32 automatic Hungarian issued to Panzer officers. I kept the two sidearms plus Iron Cross & swell medals, now on display in my home. The sergeant had an M38 machine gun which he failed to use. The corporal had an SS dagger, which I kept.
The remains plus briefcase & boxes were turned over to the MPs. The pictures taken I have either lost or misplaced, hidden in my collections, who knows where. This was an interesting but minor battle as the war would continue on to May, ending in Germany Austria in 1945.”
The letter was unsigned and undated, but still what a great package! The letter was accompanied by a very poor photo showing a German officer stretched across the hood of a jeep. The photo had a handwritten caption: “U-Boat Comm Ritter von Schobert II — sad ending.”
The provenance should significantly enhance the pistol’s value. It’s a shame that the author didn’t provide his name or more information about his military service!
What’s the mystery? There appears to be no record of a U-boat commander named Rudolf Schobert II. A man who might have been his father, General Eugen Ritter von Schobert (13 March 1883 – 12 September 1941), commanded the 11th Army during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. He died in a plane crash in September 1941, and was known to have two sons and a daughter. His youngest son died while fighting with the Luftwaffe in 1944. Of the second son — perhaps this U-boat commander — there is no record. Was he the U-boat officer killed in this incident? Or is this entire story a fake?
WE ARE THE CARETAKERS
Each of us is acting, after a fashion, as a museum curator. To preserve the history of our collection, collectors must use all opportunities to create — and protect — the history of our pieces.
Here are some ways to do that:
*When you buy an item from a previous owner — or from their family — learn as much as you can about the individual. From where did the vet come? In what unit did the veteran serve?What was their rank? Are there stories associated with the item(s), or with the vet’s service?Write it all down.
*If the item is a captured enemy item, find out where it captured and when. What were the circumstances? Who captured it? A written account will help distinguish your item from a post-war reproduction.
*If possible, get a photo of the vet holding the items. If not possible, take a picture of a photo of the vet in uniform, if one is available.
*Try to keep items together. A handful of items purchased from one vet will preserve the history of the individual — and of their military service — better than one item.
*If you must sell or trade items, share the provenance with the buyer — and urge them to keep the history together with the items. I once bought a collection from another militaria fan. He made me promise to keep the items together. He told me that if I wouldn’t promise, he wouldn’t sell them to me.
It’s not always possible to have provenance — but where possible, it’s smart. And, it is our responsibility as amateur historians to collect and preserve it.